Richard piloted the boat through miles of undifferentiated green towards Bedford… The river, a muddy khaki brown color, the vegetation just a few shades greener…. No song birds, wildflowers or swans. Just a few dull ducks. And the sky grey. A constant roar of traffic in the background. Rain threatened. Passing through each lock seemed to take hours but at last we arrived in Bedford.

But for some reason, that was not enough. We had to go further, to the end of navigable waters. So we cruised on under the rail bridge, beneath the impressive arch of an all-wood pedestrian bridge, past a golf course and a cricket pitch. We left the precincts of the town behind, weaving through an ever-narrower river until finally, with the end — Kempston Mill — in sight, we ground to an ignominious halt on a shallow bank of gravel.

It took ages to reverse, and more ages to turn our 50-foot boat around. The prop, turning furiously, threw up great gouts of mud and decaying vegetation. For a while I had a vision of having to call the Environment Agency to come and rescue us from our own foolishness.

But then at last we were underway once more. We decided to moor against a concrete quay and have a belated picnic. And it was while I was hammering a stake into the ground to secure us that I noticed the tree groaning with ripe sloes. Aha, I thought, sloe gin. Everything’s going to turn out well after all.

Sloes

On Friday morning we  started the weeks’ long journey back to Braunston. The day before everything had looked grim. But today, the skies were blue, the clouds were white and fluffy. Greens of every shade imaginable lined the river banks and trees soared above us here are there forming cathedral-like canopies.

Lipstick-bright wildflowers growing in great profusion along the river banks added splashes of colour to the green. A slight breeze soughed through the poplar leaves. Butterflies, bees and dragonflies flitted from flower to flower. Songbirds provided the soundtrack and grebes emerged from the water with fish clenched tightly in their beaks.

At every lock there were ripe fruits and berries weighing down branches of overhanging trees and bushes. Apples, plums, elderberries, haws, blackberries and sloes. The locks filled fast and there was barely enough time to harvest some of the abundant sun-ripened fruit. (And I kept asking myself: where had all this plenty been on our way up the river?)

Hedgerow fruits

That was yesterday, Friday.

And on Friday night we celebrated the bounties of summer with a hedgerow fruit crumble.

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Hedgerow Crumble

Ingredients:

250g apples peeled, cored and cut into 1.5 cm chunks

250g plums, pitted and cut into halves or quarters depending on the size of the plums

250g mixed fruits and berries. We used elderberries (pulling off their stalks with a fork), whole sloes, haws and blackberries

grated rind of one lemon

10ml lemon juice (although not strictly necessary if your fruit is tart)

10ml vanilla extract

90g sugar

155g butter

125g ground almonds

125g rolled oats

freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Gently mix the fruit together with the lemon rind, lemon juice, vanilla extract, 30g of the sugar and 30g of butter. Tip into a buttered baking dish.

Mix together the ground almonds, oats and 60g sugar.

Rub the butter into the almond mix. It will be quite a solid ball, not crumbs. Then crumble the dough over the fruit in pieces of varying sizes.

Generously grind black pepper over the the crumble and bake in a moderate oven until golden.

Serve hot with Greek yoghurt, cream or even a rich vanilla ice-cream

If a vegetable can be a seductress, then that vegetable is beetroot, Beta vulgaris, earthy, of course and at the same time flamboyantly glamorous. It’s a vegetable that when you allow it to be the star of the show is capable of adding either gravitas or sophistication to a meal .
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Some weeks ago we were moored on the Oxford canal in Jericho. Our galley supplies had run low and we needed to do a shop so that we could get moving through rural north Oxfordshire where we knew we wouldn’t come across any shops for quite a few days. Richard and I sat down to sketch out some meals and make a shopping list. It was all perfectly planned. Meals for five days, not too much and not too little. Some old favorites and some new recipes we were going to try out.

I headed off to see what Jericho could offer by way of shopping opportunities. I walked past two Co-Ops. Well I didn’t actually walk past them. I went into them, walked up and down the aisles, surveyed what was on offer. Mainly pre-made sandwiches, it seemed, and a miserable fresh section. I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I couldn’t for one minute imagine why on earth there were two of these very ordinary supermarkets within blocks of each other. They would do, of course, but I decided to walk a little further to see if I could find something just a wee bit more interesting.

I turned a corner heading away from the main road and towards what I thought would be town. If need be I’d walk to the Covered Market. It would be a good walk, some nice exercise.  I could get a few exquisite things and then come back to one of the Co-Ops for the balance of the shopping list.

It seemed to me there were a couple of coffee shops ahead of me. Mmm, maybe I should stop off and while away half an hour, have a cappuccino? Nope. If I was going to the Covered Market, I’d better get moving. I could have a coffee there.

Then, right in front of me I saw a white van, doors flung open, crates of organic produce spilling onto the pavement, people milling around chatting and shopping. It was the Cultivate Veg Van in Jericho for its weekly stop. How lucky was I?

I tossed the shopping list into the nearest bin and picked up a basket and threw caution to the wind.

I did rather a large shop. As I walked back down the towpath to Patience laden with bags of organic produce I thought I’d better come up with a plan. I just knew Richard would say ‘Lovely – but what exactly do you think we’re going to make with this arbitary mountain of vegetables?’

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And because I had been seduced I knew that I had better be very clever in devising a good few meals that were going to center around my crimson temptress .IMG_6741Beetroot Tart Tatin

I normally make this in a cast iron frying pan, but because we don’t have such an item on the boat I made it in a rectangular baking dish – 30 x 23 cm

Ingredients

  • 6 large beetroots, peeled and sliced about 7mm thick
  • 4 T olive oil
  • 75g butter
  • 4 T sherry vinegar
  • 1T sugar
  • ground black pepper and coarse salt
  • 1 sheet ready-made puff pastry

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Celcius.

Toss the beetroot with the olive oil in the baking dish and roast, covered with foil, until tender.

Remove from the baking dish and set aside.

Add the butter, sherry vinegar, sugar salt and pepper to the baking dish and put back into the oven until the mixture is bubbling and syrupy.

Toss the beetroot with the sherry mixture and arrange in overlapping rows in the baking dish.

Top with the sheet of puff pastry, tucking in the edges all round.

Bake until puffed and golden. Remove from oven, loosen the edges and flip out onto a board or platter.

Serve with marscapone topped with a sprinkling of togarashi or goat’s cheese sliced and rolled in togarashi and a green salad made with rocket. Make a simple dressing of olive oil, sherry vinegar and honey. You can use some of the beetroot greens in the salad too. DSCF1434 Beetroot Cured Salmon

Ingredients

  • 1kg piece of salmon – I’ve made it with and without the skin but I think I prefer it without
  • 500g beetroot, grated
  • 175g coarse salt (but I have also used ordinary table salt)
  • 100g sugar
  • 60ml vodka (I’ve also used gin)
  • zest of two lemons
  • a bunch of fresh dill, chopped (or you can used dried)

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Method

Mix all the ingredients (except the salmon) well together.

Layer half of it in a glass dish just large enough to hold the salmon.

Put the salmon on top of the beetroot mixture and cover with the remaining beetroot.

Cover tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Remove the salmon from the mixture and wipe it dry with paper towels.

Slice thinly.DSCF1352 Serve with crème fraîche, lemon wedges and fried capers,with or without buckwheat blini.

Bonus meal: Beetroot greens and lentil soup

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Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped fine
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 carrots, chopped fine
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped fine
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 200g green lentils
  • water or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • beetroot greens from a bunch or two of beetroots, shredded

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Method

Heat the olive oil, add the onions and fry very gently until soft and translucent.

Add the garlic, carrot, celery and bay leaves, and cook gently for about ten minutes.

Add the lentils and stock and continue cooking until the lentils are soft.

Stir in the beetroot greens and sherry vinegar.

Cook for about five to ten minutes.

Season and serve either as is, or with a dollop of marscapone or manchego and/or strips of serrano ham.

What would you do if, as you sat down with six months of bank statements, a cup of tea and a huge dose of determination, you received this message:

‘Hi Trish, we’re going to be harvesting a small batch of honey in about an hour. If you’re in Braunston you’re welcome to come up and see how it’s done.’

This was a message from beekeeper Neil Bannister owner of the gorgeous Southfield Cottage that Richard and I stayed in at the beginning of our trip. Guests at Southfield find a jar of honey in the cottage when they arrive. I had a lot of fun using it.

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I shook my head over Neil’s message. I was in the middle of a chore I’d put off for weeks, involving all those bank statements and a complicated analysis of who’d paid what for what. I contemplated texting, ‘So sorry, I’m right in the middle of something really important, can’t make it. Maybe next time.’

But was I mad? There was no way I could say no.

The view from Southfield cottage is lovely. In the foreground is a lovely meadow, cropped short by cows and sheep.

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Then there’s the canal, separating us from Braunston Marina. And then, beyond that, a vista of distant hills. But perhaps the most distinctive part of that landscape is something so close to the cottage   you’re apt to miss it altogether: a higgledy-piggledy row of beehives.

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I just had to go and see how the honey gets from those hives into a jar.

‘Richard, I’m just going to run up the hill to the village for a while.’

He looked up with surprise. ‘What did you say?’

I had not ten minutes before given Richard a very stern lecture on how I was going to be working all evening, that he was going to be cooking supper and that there was no way we were going to binge-watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix.

‘I’m going up the hill to watch Neil and Kim harvesting honey.’

‘And your grand plans?’

‘Shelved. See you later.’ And with that I jumped out the boat onto the jetty and set off up the hill.

A couple of hours later I was back on the boat with a little jar of the freshest honey I’d ever possessed plus some thyme and sage. Kim, with great foresight suggested I pick some herbs from the planter outside Southfield Cottage. These ingredients would turn into a perfect breakfast.

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But what could I do with the honey that would do justice to it? What would show it off to its best advantage?

It would of course be perfect with toast and lightly salted butter. The bread would have to be the best. Sourdough would be perfect. Well, I wasn’t going to be able to make that and there was no way I’d find it in the village shop, I was sure. I’d have to think of something else. Scones, nope. Crumpets, nope. I needed to use some of the herbs too. Thyme goes so perfectly with honey.

What about oat and thyme pancakes?

After a quick google search I found this recipe for oat pancakes by Rosie Sykes on the Guardian. It was perfect. You mix the oats and milk and leave the mixture to stand overnight. In the morning you beat in a couple of eggs and some bicarb and cook. I did make a couple of changes. I used baking powder instead of bicarb and added a very generous pile of fresh thyme leaves.

I served the oat pancakes warm with butter and honey on some and crème fraîche and honey on others.DSCF1855

The oat pancakes were the absolutely perfect platform for the honey.DSCF1838

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